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A Humanitarian Exception to the Principle of Non-Intervention?: Measures Below the Use of Armed Force to Save Aleppo

Do the atrocities in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria permit the United States and other states to engage in intrusive actions against the Assad regime that would not ordinarily be permitted by international law? That question has been asked and debated at Just Security with regard to the legality of “humanitarian intervention” as a potential exception to the international prohibition on the use of force in another state’s territory. But what about other coercive measures that the members of the international community might wish to take short of the use of force?

International law prohibits states from taking actions, below the threshold of the use of force, that interfere with the domestic affairs of another state. We call this the principle of non-interference. So, the question is: even if one believes there is no humanitarian exception to the use of force, how about a humanitarian exception to the principle of non-interference?

What measures might the principle of non-interference prohibit? One of the most useful commentaries on these legal issues was written by former Legal Adviser to the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Michael Wood and Maziar Jamnejad. Wood and Jamnejad survey a range of actions that may be breaches of the principle including: intensive political interference, economic coercion, and non-recognition of statehood.

Here I simply raise the question, which I have not seen posed before in legal commentary. At least, I have not seen it discussed outside the realm of humanitarian assistance without a territorial State’s consent.

There may be good reasons to impose a high bar before ever embracing the idea that international law should allow for a humanitarian exception to the use of force—even in the face of mass atrocity. But should the bar be a lot lower when it comes to other rules of international law—when lawful means for addressing an atrocity are effectively hopeless?

 

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About the Author

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, Former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016) Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).